Oct 1, 1977

“a slice of the life of the imagination”

Atlas Shrugged “offers the world in a nutshell and sketches an instruction booklet for those interested in making their own nutshells.”

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged will be twenty-one years old in another year; it will, figuratively speaking, have attained its majority. And there is about that prospect an unmistakable savor of lost innocence—as there would be about the prospect of an older, larger Alice humorlessly telling a child that it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place, or about the prospect of a “sivilized” Huck Finn or a “phony” Holden Caulfield. For in the life of the imagination, Alice is eternally the child’s eye view of adult pedantry and officiousness; Huck Finn is forever the Noble Savage, American style; and Holden Caulfield is always sixteen and always fighting not to “grow up.” In the life of the imagination, each of them is innocent—unaffected by any knowledge—of, respectively, the adult’s eye view of children or the uses of culture or the social basis of pretense and dissimulation.

And just so is there an innocence about Atlas Shrugged. Consider its story; a slice of the life of the imagination in which three brilliant, young, egoistic, hotheaded non-conformists meet in college, share an intense and deeply personal interest in ideas regarded by their professors as bunk, and go on to literally shake the world with their uses of these ideas, showing up their former professors and the intellectual establishment, in the process, for the fools and frauds they are. This is the daydream of a bright adolescent at intellectual odds with his teachers—an adolescent who figures, as Granville Hicks put it twenty years ago in his otherwise singularly unperceptive review of Atlas Shrugged, that “it might be a good idea if the whole human race, except for us and the few nice people we know, were wiped out.”(1)

Rand even presents her story as a sort of simultaneous detective novel and science fiction novel—as a blend, that is, of the two kinds of book most favored by young readers. The fact is, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is one of the great unacknowledged children’s books of our time.

To say of a book that it is a children’s book is not to denigrate it, of course—though it is hardly surprising that in a society where children are the most abominably treated of all despised minorities, it should come to be supposed that the phrase “children’s book” is identical with the phrase “second rate book.” On the contrary. The best children’s books—Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books are the best examples— are fully as “serious” and fully as artistic as the best adult books. What makes them children’s books is their presentation of a childlike perspective, an innocent perspective, on the world, a perspective untroubled by knowledge of the inexhaustible richness of context in which real events occur, a perspective from which the world is simple and self-evident.

The world is a chance-ordered game in which adults guide one’s progress—supervising one, contradicting one, ordering one about-behaving at times with the pompous pedantry of Humpty Dumpty, at other times with the gentle, solicitous ineptitude of the White Knight. The world is a factory in which most of one’s fellow workers and all one’s superiors are third-rate parasites who hate and fear competence, but in which, in the long run, only competence works, so that one really can start as a day-laborer on the great railroad and win the hand of the boss’s daughter by sheer force of ability. The world is an institution in which persons larger and more powerful than one watch one twenty-four hours a day and subject one to torture when one is caught deviating, even privately, from their standards of behavior. Through the Looking Glass. Atlas Shrugged. 1984.

I introduce Orwell at this point to stress the nature of the concept “children’s book’’ as I’m using it here— to include not only those books of interest exclusively to children, but also those among adult books (especially “classic” adult books) which, because they formulate human life in models of clarity, simplicity and imaginative scope, children enjoy reading. 1984 is certainly in this category2, as are The Call of the Wild, The Lord of the Rings, The Catcher in the Rye, Gulliver’s Travels, The Time Machine, Lord of the Flies, Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and a dozen or more novels of rebellion against authority, of which Atlas Shrugged is one.

Children, especially adolescents, have an easy time reading portraits of the world as a repressive regime: that’s pretty much the way the world is for them. And Rand, in Atlas Shrugged, works to intensify the empathy such readers must feel with the world of her novel by making all her most heroic characters as youthful as possible.

Dagny Taggart looks “like a young girl; only her mouth and eyes [show] that she [is] a woman in her thirties.” When she calls on Francisco d’Anconia at the Wayne-Falkland hotel, she finds him sitting on the floor playing marbles and smiling “the unchanged, insolent, brilliant smile of his childhood.” She looks at Ellis Wyatt and sees “the purity, the eagerness, the joyous benevolence of a child in the kind of world for which he had been intended.” She visits John Galt’s “Utopia of Greed” and recalls one of the legends she heard about Galt before meeting him: “John Galt found the fountain of youth which he wanted to bring down to men. Only he never came back … because he found that it couldn’t be brought down.”

Hank Rearden, who looked “old at twenty,” looks “young now, at forty-five.” Francisco d’Anconia glances at him as he speaks his last sentence on the last page of Atlas Shrugged and sees “the eyes of youth looking at the future with no uncertainty or fear.” Eddie Willers watches the collapse of civilization and is reminded of feeling “an immense betrayal” when he was seven years old and a favorite oak tree collapsed in a storm.

Conversely, the evil characters in Atlas Shrugged are prematurely aged. “James Taggart . .. looked like a man approaching fifty, who had crossed into age from adolescence, without the intermediate stage of youth. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness …. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled…. He looked obstinate and drained. He was thirty-nine years old.” Phillip Rearden “had always been in precarious health. … He was thirty-eight, but his chronic weariness made people think at times that he was older than his brother.”

And so it goes. Youthful heroes with whom youthful readers can “identify” easily.3 An ingeniously comprehensive vision of the world in all its simplicity and self-evidence. “Eddie Willers … it self-evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how people could want to do otherwise; he had learned only that they did. It still seemed simple and incomprehensible to him: simple that things should be right, and incomprehensible that they weren’t.”

In one of her essays, Rand characterizes adolescence as “the period when [a person] becomes aware of the need to translate his incoherent sense of life into conscious terms… . the period when he gropes for such things as the meaning of life, for principles, ideals, values… .”4 It is to philosophy that he must look for full, consistent definition of these principles, ideals and values, Rand writes; it is to art that he must look for objectification of their reality, for “the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.”5 And just as the student of mathematics begins with the less and moves on gradually to the more complex problems and proofs, so the student of life is drawn earliest and with greatest intensity to theories and visions which fit the infinite variety of life into a single, easily grasped idea; it is only later that he learns to appreciate the achievements of thinkers and artists who formulate life by creating elaborate, even labyrinthine conceptual structures which, tapestry-like, integrate the most disparate, obscure and seemingly contradictory ideas.

Little wonder then that so many intelligent, independent minded, rebellious adolescents have found Atlas Shrugged so irresistible they have made its author the center of a literary-philosophical cult and that cult in turn the nucleus of an important political movement. For someone at that critical stage in his personal development when ideas have become important but remain half understood, Atlas Shrugged is a reading experience of overwhelming impact. It integrates nearly everything—love, sex, work, art and politics, most notably—into an idea at once simple and revolutionary; it dabbles tantalizingly in philosophy and asserts that it is there the reader will find proof of this and other such ideas; it offers the world in a nutshell and sketches an instruction booklet for those interested in making their own nutshells.

Every serious reader passes through such a stage—the stage of what might be called intellectual adolescence—and only sometimes during his sociobiological childhood. Some serious readers remain there. Others go on to reading of greater complexity and attain their intellectual majority, only to depreciate and undervalue the books from which they learned what serious reading is all about. Still others become professional critics and denounce as “juvenile” and “polemical” and “simplistic” books of the same sort as once stimulated them to devote their lives to literature. They would do better to recognize that while the impression any book makes on its reader depends on who the reader is and what he has already seen and thought and read, there are some books whose importance is almost entirely heuristic and whose importance is not diminished one whit by that fact.

For that matter, it is by no means clear that in philosophy, as in politics, there are no simple solutions. In the chapter on definitions in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand argues that childish definitions of man—as an audible moving thing, as a furless, two-legged thing, as a speaking animal which can do things no other animal can do—are not contradicted by more sophisticated definitions. They are “included implicitly,” she writes, “as non-defining characteristics, in a more precise definition of man. It is still true that man is a rational animal who speaks, does things no other living beings can do, walks on two legs, has no fur, moves and makes sounds.”

Similarly, it is still true that life is a process of self-generated, self-sustaining action which resembles at times a game, at other times an institution, and at still other times a realm in which “to hold an unchanging youth is to reach, at the end, the vision with which one started.”

1The New York Times Book Review, October 13, 1957.

2See, in this connection, C.M. Kornbluth’s essay, “The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism,” in The Science Fiction Novel, edited by Basil Davenport, Chicago, Advent, 1969, especially pages 68 and 69.

3“ ‘To identify with’ is a colloquial designation for a process of abstraction,” Rand writes. “It. means to observe a common element between the character and oneself, to draw an abstraction from the character’s problems and apply it to one’s own life.” (The Romantic Manifesto, New York, World, 1969, p. 47).

4“Philosophy and Sense of Life” in The Romantic Manifesto, page 36.

5“Art and Sense of Life” in The Romantic ‘Manifesto, page 49.

Jeff Riggenbach is a frequent contributor to Libertarian Review.